Photos by Aaron Davidson
Historic images courtesy of Faribault Woolen Mill
The Faribault Woolen Mill hugs the Cannon River in Faribault, Minnesota, 50 miles south of Minneapolis. A small dam foams alongside the building, whose walls boast a hodgepodge of vivid and faded red brick. Inside, the looms, pickers, and carting machines beat a persistent rhythm.
Faribault Woolen Mill celebrated its 150th anniversary on August 15, 2015, but that longevity isn’t immediately obvious inside the mill’s retail store. Ray Lamontagne and Iron & Wine ballads drift over neatly folded blankets displayed on white shelves and husky wood tables. Exposed trusses, wood floors, and neutral-colored scarves, pillows, and throws give off a sleek North Woods lodge vibe. If not for the sound of the machinery, some of which has been here since the turn of the 20th century, one might think this is just another warehouse-turned-boutique.
Beyond the store, narrow staircases and tight corners lead to sprawling open spaces lined with galloping looms and dryers. Dozens of enclaves, nooks, and crannies crowd the rest of the giant building, a collection of additions and original framework. “It’s a total maze,” says Faribault Woolen Mill partner and Chief Marketing Officer Bruce Bildsten. “It’s not at all how you’d lay out a new mill. But it’s part of who we are.”
The mill’s heritage stretches back to a time when seed stores in southern Minnesota still printed their catalogues in German. Carl H. Klemer, a German immigrant, founded Faribault Woolen Mill in 1865. Klemer’s one horse-powered mill got its start turning local wool into batting for insulation and bedding. In 1872, the mill began producing blankets from wool as well as cotton.
After a few decades of steady growth, the Klemers built a new mill in 1892, where the current one stands. Under the weight of economic depression and the looming war, other mills around the country rapidly dissolved in the early 1900s. Klemer stubbornly stayed on, though, determined to find a way to supply local jobs. His solution: making blankets for the United States Navy. The partnership remains strong to this day.
While cranking out hundreds of thousands of blankets during the World Wars, the mill steadily expanded in the retail world, too. By 1937, Faribault blankets could be found in most major department stores. The 1960s and ’70s brought in myriad new designs and fruitful partnerships, including Pan Am Airways, Northeastern Airlines, and Pullman Railroads, all of which provided passengers with Faribault blankets to use during trips.
After owning the mill for five generations, the Klemer family sold Faribault Woolen Mill in the early 2000s to an investment company that attempted to compete with Asia by blending wool with acrylic to cut costs. The change came at a price, however. Shoppers and retailers weren’t interested in the lower-quality blankets, and the mill went out of business in 2009. It stayed closed for 18 months.
Plans to bulldoze were in place. The basement was flooded. The roof leaked. Dennis Melchert, a mill employee for over 40 years and current vice president of research and product development, was hired by a liquidating company to explain the mill’s assets. Like a lone ghostly caretaker, Dennis visited the mill every day during the 18 months it was closed, turning everything on and making sure the bearings didn’t seize up.
Everything from the machinery to the shelving was tagged and set to be shipped to Pakistan—until cousins Chuck and Paul Mooty came to the rescue in 2011. Chuck, former president and CEO of International Dairy Queen, saw Dennis’ passion and took it as a sign: The mill, he believed, could be revived. The key was rededicating themselves to only making the highest quality woolen products.
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